Sexual Misconduct at Arizona State’s Honors College


In light of recent discussions of professor-student sexual relations (here, for example), readers might be interested in learning of about what has been happening at Barrett, the Honors College of Arizona State University.

In the past few years, Barrett has terminated the contracts of at least three professors who engaged in sexual relationships with students. Joel Hunter and Dr. Eric Susser were told their contracts were not being renewed after they admitted to violating ASU’s student-professor relationship policies, and Dr. David Conz committed suicide after his contract was dropped when a student reported he’d given alcohol to the Barrett freshman he was dating. Police records, documents given to New Times by involved students, and reports by other media outlets confirm the terminations. But some say the number of Barrett faculty members skirting the rules — and whose contracts may have been dropped — actually is far higher….

Last fall, ASU’s faculty senate debated whether to replace its own policy with an outright ban on professor-undergraduate relationships. At a  senate meeting in November, Cynthia Tompkins, chair of the committee drafting the proposed policy changes, referenced the scope of ASU’s problem. She said at least 20 faculty members across ASU have been dismissed for having inappropriate sexual relationships with students in recent years…

The Human Event [a Barrett course on the history of ideas] is “a wonderful course to get students into the idea of working closely with a professor,” says a former staff member who asked to not be identified. But she says she also believes the class has contributed to the problem of too-close professor-student relations.“Because it was so friendly,” she says, “if you had any faculty members who were not terribly ethical in how they related to youngsters, it was a situation in which they could take advantage.”

With these professors, sources tell New Times, office hours turn into intimate meetings. Examination of the ancient Greeks may have an odd focus on the sexual relationships between mentors and mentees. Trips abroad are fueled more by alcohol than by learning.

To many, Barrett’s very structure, intended to create a close learning community for students and professors alike, has instead become something sinister: a way for predatory teachers to grow close to — sometimes, even sexually — the young and ambitious students in their tutelage.

The story at the Phoenix New Times begins with the relationship between Joel Hunter, a philosophy instructor at Barrett and one of the professors who taught “The Human Event” course, and one of his then-students, “Jane.” The article describes elements of their “covert” romantic and sexual relationship, including how he wrote her letters of recommendation during the relationship and granted her extensions on schoolwork because of it. Further details about the relationship are presented in a blog post written by Jane, along with Jasmine Lester. The latter is a former Barrett student who herself had had a relationship with a professor that “took on a dynamic that extended beyond professional boundaries,” and who founded “Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault,” an advocacy group.

The article in the New Times also includes a discussion of ASU’s policy about amorous relations, a policy known as ACD 402:

As written today, ACD 402 bans ASU employees from making key decisions — grading, hiring, disciplining, or offering recommendations — over anyone with whom they are in a sexual relationship. The policy bans faculty members from engaging in relationships with any students currently enrolled in their classes, and it says violations can result in disciplinary action up to termination.

A recent attempt to revise ACD 402 to include a ban on all faculty-student amorous relations did not succeed, out of concerns that it was “very invasive” and “intrusive.”

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Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

Universities should also think very carefully about how their institutional practices contribute to this problem. This article obviously mentions things like excessively close working relationships, late night meetings, problematic trips abroad, and so on. But they should also consider who’s teaching these courses. Is “The Human Event” being taught by short-term, junior visiting faculty? Are they hiring “one and done” faculty who will then move on to a different city and have no long-term, meaningful connection to the institution? If so (and I don’t know the answer to those questions, so maybe they’ve somehow found a way to fund these courses using TT faculty), they should consider how their problematic labor practices contribute to the problem.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
6 years ago

Although Joel Hunter was a “philosophy lecturer” in the sense that he does have a PhD in philosophy (from Kentucky) and was a lecturer for the Barrett Honors College, he was not affiliated with the Philosophy Faculty or with the School of Philosophical, Historical, and Religious Studies. He did not, for instance, teach philosophy (PHI) courses, and he was not at all involved with our PhD program. Indeed, in my 9 years at ASU, I never even met the man. –Doug Portmore (Head of Philosophy, School of Philosophical, Historical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University).Report

AnonWhileOnJobMarket
AnonWhileOnJobMarket
6 years ago

Matt, that is kinda a weird response. And I say this as an adjunct professor with great concern over my horrible working conditions, and the conditions of my fellow adjuncts. I think they certainly need to be reformed. But (1) I am kinda offended by the idea, made without evidence, that adjunct and VAPs are more likely to engage in inappropriate romantic and sexual relationships than other types of professors. I think I can understand why trying to sleep with my students is wrong, even without a strong commitment to the university itself, and really bothered that you feel maybe I cannot? (2) In this case, I am not sure what Joel Hunter’s job was, but in the links above, he is clearly labelled as having been teaching at ASU Honors since 2008, so not some sort of one or two year appointment. (3) I am unsure if the close connection suggested above (the field trips, the frequent office hours, etc) increases sexual harassment and problematic relationships, but the schools that are most likely for that climate to be true for (SLACs and Honor Colleges) are the ones most likely to hire tenure track faculty.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

Hi Anon. I don’t know whether adjuncts and VAPs are more likely to engage in inappropriate relationships. If I thought they did, I’d have said so. I’d appreciate not having words put into my mouth by anonymous commenters.Report

AnonWhileOnJobMarket
AnonWhileOnJobMarket
6 years ago

Matt,

I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. Feel free to clarify your original remarks if you want (if you don’t want to, that’s cool too). I reread them, and I still drew the same conclusions (the conclusion being that short term contract people do not develop strong connections to the university might “contribute to this problem”). That seems to to indicate to me that you believe it is likely that “short-term, junior visiting faculty” are more likely to engage in inappropriate relationships. Honestly, I can’t figure out what you meant, if not this. I don’t want to get into a big back and forth over this, and distract from the import of the thread, so I hope you don’t mind if I try to make this my last point on this part of the topic.

And sorry about being an anonymous commentator, it rubs me the wrong way, too. Being made to feel like a coward is one of the many things I have come to hate about being on the job market.Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

Matt,

What *did* you mean then? If you didn’t mean what anon thought you meant, then how does the use of non-TT faculty potentially contribute to the problem of sexual misconduct?Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

Thanks, Anon. That’s fair. There’s been a wave of anonymous assholes making swipes at people on philosophy blogs (I assume I don’t need to write an extended history of this for most folks who come here…) and I’m generally at the point now of refusing to engage with anonymous commenters who are being uncharitable.

What I was getting at is the gap between non-TT faculty and policy/institutional culture. Like you, I’ve worked as non-TT faculty. One part of the experience is simply that one doesn’t have much control over department policy and one doesn’t feel as invested in university culture as the permanent folks. And so it struck me as odd that ASU moved to change faculty-student relationship policy as a result of this stuff. Why was that the first move? It just doesn’t seem like the proper first place to look.

The first place to look might be simply at how close the faculty feel to the institution itself, and that might involve examining hiring practices. I know off the top of my head several universities that hire large banks of “one year” visiting faculty. And I know a number of people currently teaching in such programs. And many of those people are pretty checked out when it comes to how closely connected they are to institutional culture. Some aren’t going to give a shit if the university updates its policies written by and approved by TT faculty. If they were in inappropriate relationships before, those sorts of policy changes aren’t going to dissuade them (and if they weren’t in inappropriate relationships before, they’re not relevant for the present discussion). I’m re-reading Doug’s comment (#2), and what stands out to me isn’t that Hunter was some kind of renegade. What stands out to me is that a philosopher could be teaching at a university for close to a decade and *never even met* permanent members of the philosophy department. I bet a lot of non-TT faculty could testify to that. And lest I get uncharitably misinterpreted, let me be clear that I’m not casting blame at Doug. I’m pointing out that this is an undesirable thing that happens at many universities.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

Thanks, Matt. I also wasn’t following your first post and that’s helpful. But I’m still not sure I’m following. Can you say a bit about what type of relationships you think universities should be concerning with preventing or discouraging? Is your thought that fair labor practices would be the best way to avoid them, better than a ban on undergrad-faculty relationships?Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

No, Jan, I think I’d rather step aside and let other people give their thoughts. I suspect further commenting from me in this forum is going to result in anonymous trolling that distracts from the important issues.Report

BunnyHugger
BunnyHugger
6 years ago

“Examination of the ancient Greeks may have an odd focus on the sexual relationships between mentors and mentees.” … Odder than the ancient Greeks’?Report

AnonWhileOnJobMarket
AnonWhileOnJobMarket
6 years ago

Matt, that makes a lot more sense, thanks.

BunnyHunger: “Odder than the ancient Greeks’?”
So, not sure this is clear to everyone, but some professors use discussing the practices of Greek erotic pedagogy as a way of testing the boundaries of the students they want to sleep with. I personally have had two different women tell me that their philosophy professor (at different institutions) used discussions about Greek erotic pedagogy as a segue into talking about wanting to sleep with them. So, this is not some sort of claim to avoid talking about this practice or to stop teaching The Symposium (obviously), but rather explaining why that comment is probably included.Report

Anonymous graduate student
Anonymous graduate student
6 years ago

It seems like most of the discussion concerns the appropriateness of sexual relations between *professors* employed by the university and undergraduate students enrolled at the university. This is obviously an important conversation to have, especially in light of all the high profile cases of professors misbehaving. It is interesting, though, how little of the discussion concerns the appropriateness of sexual relations between *graduate instructors*, who are both employed by and enrolled in the university, and undergraduate students. It seems like many of the same considerations that make sexual relations between professors and undergraduates morally concerning also make sexual relations between graduate instructors and undergraduate students morally concerning. And it seems like a university would face many of the same legal liabilities in each case, given that both professors and graduate instructors are university employees. I am a graduate student and have fellow graduate student colleagues with partners they met while teaching or TA-ing an undergraduate course. It might be true that the age difference between graduate instructors and undergraduates is likely to be much smaller than the age difference between professors and undergraduates, but is there a relevant difference that makes this less problematic?Report

Alastair Norcross
6 years ago

Arizona State has an honors college?Report